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MassDEP charges Housatonic River Initiative $34,000 for records request related to cleanup lawsuit

A wide river is flanked by banks covered in grass and trees
Josh Landes
The Housatonic River in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

A Berkshire County environmental group legally challenging the Housatonic River cleanup crying foul as it faces a $34,000 fee for a single public records request.

Since it was announced in February 2020, the plan to remove toxic chemicals dumped in Berkshire County’s largest waterway by General Electric from a Pittsfield plant has proved controversial. While its advocates say the agreement mediated between community leaders along the river and GE marks a massive step forward, its detractors bristle at the fact that it calls for the creation of a new dump in Lee.

“We’ve been working at this site for 30 years, and the skepticism about what EPA and DEP are doing, and General Electric, continues to get greater rather than minimize," said Housatonic River Initiative Executive Director Tim Gray. “Years ago, we once did this before in the town of Lee, where we realized that the Board of Health has enormous power. And one of the things under Massachusetts General Law 111 allows them to- You know, they're sort of charged with protecting the health of the people of their town, board of health, right? What we're asking our Board of Health to do is hold an adjudicatory hearing on this.”

The HRI – which has a lawsuit against the plan in federal court – decided to file records requests from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA to gather as much information as it could about the dump.

“We sent the freedom of information requests in, I don't know, four or five months ago, and three days, four days ago now, we got the first letter back from the DEP request – not the EPA, we haven't heard from them yet – and the DEP writes us and says, OK, your FOIA is ready for you to pick up and it's going to cost you $3,600," Gray told WAMC. "And we thought that very strange, because all of our attorneys tell us that generally, nonprofits don't have to pay for any of this. So we started to feel like is this a little bit of a shakedown of us.”

After some discussion, the HRI agreed to pay the fee.

“We called their bluff and said, OK, we’ll pay you that money," continued Gray. "And when do we pick that thing up? And then, very shortly, and I'm talking within, you know, [an] hour’s time, DEP writes back to us and says, oh, guess what, you know, we took a second look at this and blah, blah, blah. We didn't do this, and we didn't do this, and we recalculated everything. And now, you owe us, to pick it up, it'll cost you $34,000.”

The fee’s dramatic escalation shocked Gray, the HRI, and its lawyers — as well as raising more questions about what’s going on with the cleanup plan.

“DEP, EPA, what are you hiding?" he asked. "What are you hiding from us that you have to ask $34,000 from a small nonprofit? Something they're hiding. We are very worried about many things that could be possible scenarios that worry us. And one is that GE has bought more property up near the land they already bought, which at the time, they all told us that that was all the land they needed to build a dump up there and everything. And then all of a sudden, they're buying more land. They bought a little campground next to the dump. And they've got, voila, a bunch of more acres.”

MassDEP offered the following statement to WAMC when asked about the $34,000 fee:

“We sought to have the requester narrow the scope and when that did not happen, we assumed a 10-year search range for the documents, did an IT and document search, determined that there may be more than 27,000 documents to collect and review and calculated the final estimate using that information. MassDEP stands ready to work with the requester to further narrow the scope of the request, including limiting the timeframe of the search, in order to collect and provide the documents needed.”

According to MassDEP, payment is required before it begins the process of searching for and copying the records.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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